An awakening across the Arab world


An awakening is occurring across the Arab world – a mass uprising in political activity and consciousness, already resulting in revolutionary mobilisations overthrowing dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening others.

It’s extremely encouraging and inspiring, a big turnaround in the political situation in the region, impacting on world politics as well as the Maghreb and Middle East, which former US President Eisenhower called “the most strategically important area in the world”.

The situation in the Arab world in the decades before this upsurge seemed one of quiescence, lack of democracy, repression, backwardness and lack of politicisation, apart from Palestine, where the struggle had continued. It was a story of dictators and dynasties, royal or imposed: the Saudi family, the petty sheikhs of the Gulf and Oman, dynasties in Jordan and Morocco, the nominal republics, most no less dynastic and brutal than the monarchies themselves. Perry Anderson wrote in a recent New Left Review (March-April 2011):

“The two hallmarks of the region, its continuing domination by the American imperial system and its continuing lack of democratic institutions, have been connected. The connection is not a simple derivation. Where democracy is reckoned any threat to capital, the United States and its allies have never hesitated to remove it … Conversely, where autocracy is essential, it will be well guarded. The despotisms of Arabia, resting on tribal hand-outs and sweated immigrant labour, are strategic pinions of the Pax Americana which the Pentagon would intervene overnight to preserve.”

After the second world war there had been efforts at throwing off the chains of colonialism and neo-colonialism:

The Algerian Revolution culminated in the defeat of the French colonisers and the creation of a workers and peasants government led by Ahmed Ben Bella from 1962 to 1965. The revolutionary government was eventually overthrown by a military coup led by Boumedienne, but the amazing struggle has been immortalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers.

The development of Arab nationalism, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, peaked with the Suez Canal nationalisation in 1956, but was an important movement affecting the whole Arab world until Nasser’s death in 1970. It gave rise to attempts to unite the Arab world, first Egypt and Syria, then Egypt, Iraq and Syria, and after the death of Nasser, Gaddafi’s Libya made some failed efforts at unity with other Arab countries.

Some key issues unite the region, in addition to the common language and religion:

The imperialist imposition of the Zionist colonial settler state of Israel, and the expropriation and oppression of the Palestinian people have been a dominant political feature. The injustice done to the Palestinians was an issue itself, but imperialism needs Israel for its control and subjugation of the whole region.

The importance of oil to the world capitalist economy, and the fact that the region has the largest concentration of oil reserves on Earth, make this a vital area for imperialism. This is a key issue in Washington’s concern about Iran following the Iranian revolution. It’s at the centre of Washington’s invasion of Iraq.

So it’s not too surprising that finally we’re seeing a generalised awakening – with revolutionary potential – across the whole Arab world.

Rebellions have common features

The dynamic of the uprisings has been clear. Their objective is political: liberty, political freedom, anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy.

But why now? The repression of the dictatorial regimes has existed for decades without triggering mass revolts. The timing of the uprisings is not to be explained by their aims. Nor can it plausibly be attributed just to new channels of communication: the reach of Al-Jazeera, the arrival of Facebook or Twitter have helped but did not start the insurgencies.

“The single spark that started the prairie fire suggests the answer”, wrote Anderson. “Everything began with the death in despair of a pauperized vegetable vendor, in a small provincial town in the hinterland of Tunisia. Beneath the commotion now shaking the Arab world have been volcanic social pressures: polarization of incomes, rising food prices, lack of dwellings, massive unemployment of educated – and uneducated – youth, amid a demographic pyramid without parallel in the world. In few other regions is the underlying crisis of society so acute, nor the lack of any credible model of development, capable of integrating new generations, so plain.”

All observers have noted the youthful nature of the protests. Young people are generally more educated, but there are no jobs. And the economic issues are linked to the world capitalist economic crisis, the squeeze on living standards, food costs, the flow-on from the European austerity drives.

Imperialism’s dilemma

The Tunisian revolt was the spark, inspiring further mass rebellions. In Egypt, the key country in the Arab world, the rebellion was huge and persistent, involving the sizeable working class. We started to get an understanding that it wasn’t just out of the blue – there had been some ferment bubbling away there in the last few years, especially among trade unionists and youth. And in Bahrain the rebellion had been brewing for some time.

The awakening posed a huge dilemma for imperialism. Knowing the nature of imperialism and its record, we can dismiss straight away any idea that imperialism might have favoured the anti-dictatorial upsurge. No, the discussion in imperialist inner circles would have been focussing on how to halt them:

How to prevent further steps being taken in Tunisia and Egypt?

How to prevent the upsurge spreading to other countries in the Arab world, especially the key oil states, and its key allies, such as Saudi Arabia?

Libya provides the opening

Gaddafi’s vicious crackdown on the revolt in Libya provided the opening for imperialism. As Tariq Ali wrote in the March 31 Guardian: The US-Nato intervention in Libya is designed “to bring the Arab rebellions to an end by asserting western control, confiscating their impetus and spontaneity and trying to restore the status quo ante.

“It is absurd to think that the reasons for bombing Tripoli or for the turkey shoot outside Benghazi are designed to protect civilians … The sheer cynicism is breathtaking. We’re expected to believe that the leaders with bloody hands in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are defending the people in Libya.”

The military option was initiated by France and Britain, each with its own interests reflecting inter-imperialist rivalries, followed by the US. They scraped a resolution through the UN Security Council, with China and Russia abstaining, declining to use their veto.

They covered their military attacks with hypocrisy about Gaddafi’s killing of civilians. Dozens of brutal dictators around the world and in the region have gotten away with worse, and received Washington’s support and approval. After a while, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy openly admitted that the objective was regime change. They haven’t been that open yet that the main consideration is putting an end to the upsurge, preventing it threatening their main satraps in the region.

In no way was their motive humanitarian. Their goal was to divert, subvert the Libyan struggle, and control the wider awakening. They wanted an entry point for influencing Tunisia and Egypt and others. It is the duty of all anti-imperialists and revolutionary Marxists to oppose totally the imperialist military intervention, to oppose the “no-fly-zone” and to oppose any imperialist meddling.

Need for clear left stand

The Revolutionary Socialist Party felt the need to adopt a strong statement, especially since some leftists had fallen for the imperialist story. Our resolution stated:

  • that we were absolutely opposed to imperialist military attack;
  • that in no way was it a humanitarian intervention;
  • it was not helping a people’s rebellion, but a kiss of death;
  • we oppose the idea of a “no-fly-zone”, even though it already had gone beyond that;
  • we opposed other imperialist measures, such as blockade, embargo or confiscation of assets;
  • the Libyan uprising was part of the Arab awakening of 2011, with demands for political freedom linked to demands for economic and social justice;
  • the main goal of the imperialist military intervention was to contain and subvert the Arab rebellion;
  • it was absolute hypocrisy, given the events in Bahrain, Yemen etc;
  • success for the imperialist military blitzkrieg was not a foregone conclusion;
  • Cuba and Venezuela strongly opposed the military intervention, but didn’t seem to recognise the broader potential of the Arab uprising;
  • the main tasks for socialists was to oppose the imperialist interventions, especially by our own ruling class, while defending the continuing Arab uprisings.

It increasingly came out that imperialism and its media exaggerated and distorted the threats of a Gaddafi “bloodbath” even though he was a vicious dictator. For example, Noah Tucker points out: “Were the forces of the Libyan government deliberately targeting the civilian population of Misrata (as distinct from locations used by rebel fighters), the figures for the adult women injured of less than 3% of the total, and of children less than 1% of the total, would be impossible” (Death by Humanitarianism). Contrast this with the proportions killed by the Israelis in Gaza – 50% women and children.

The leadership of the Libyan rebellion was mixed, but imperialism’s military intervention ensured the dominance of its supporters.

Some on the left conned

Unfortunately some on the left were conned. Gilbert Achcar’s profile today is primarily academic, but as “Jaber” he had functioned as a central leader of the Fourth International. He came out in support of the “no-fly-zone”. Since his initial article, his statements seem to be trying to retreat from that.

The Danish Red Green Alliance, of which the FI group is an important component, also supported the imperialist intervention, but the FI group has now come out against.

In Australia, some groups such as the Search Foundation, the old CPA, came out in support of the intervention. Perhaps not quite as expected, given their training and tradition, some members of the group that resigned from the RSP last August also came out in support of the imperialist military intervention. In late March, Marce Cameron and Owen Richards were defending this position in exchanges on Facebook. Then on April 3 Iggy Kim and Marce Cameron submitted a full article to various internet lists, defending the intervention as “a tactical, necessary evil”.What might be the reasons for their political retreat? It fits with their reason for quitting the RSP: lack of faith in revolution and the possibility of building a revolutionary party. But it’s stunning they have illusions that imperialist military intervention would help a “revolution”.

Socialist Alliance has been ambiguous, issuing a statement opposing the intervention, but calling for other imperialist sanctions, and being slow to support protests. SA member Renfrey Clarke, however, has circulated an article grudgingly supporting the imperialist intervention: “In my view ... a coincidence between the machinations of imperialism and specific interests of the world’s oppressed exists in Libya today”, he wrote .

Danger in Syria

The world is now focussed on Syria, waiting to see how strong the protests will be, what political current will dominate, what level of repression comes from the regime and how imperialism will try to gain control.

Syria’s bourgeois-nationalist regime has been inconsistent in taking anti-imperialist positions. In April 1976, the Syrian army entered Lebanon with the backing of the United States, blocking the victory of the progressive forces in a civil war. While opposed to Israel and imperialist domination, the Syrian bourgeoisie was also fearful of a revolutionary victory in Lebanon spreading throughout the region. Syria also participated in the first imperialist invasion of Iraq in 1991.

Washington is threatening “further steps” against the regime. On April 25, the White House announced that President Obama was considering “targeted sanctions” against Syria and is pressing for sanctions and other actions at the UN Security Council. European Union governments have agreed to freeze the assets of and impose travel restrictions on 13 Syrian officials held responsible for the crackdown.

While the opposition has mobilised large parts of the population in demonstrations across the country, the regime also has a base. This has also been reflected in the Sydney demonstrations. The pro-Assad one had several thousand people, the opposition one fewer than 100. There’s still support for Ba’athists in the community here.

The character of the opposition is also unclear and varied. There are some imperialist-influenced forces, it seems, in the border town of Daraa, some sectarian Islamist forces and some also reflecting the general Arab region uprising. There have been many casualties reported, including quite a few police and army, so in some areas it’s not just a peaceful protest.

Russia and China this time have refused to go along with the US, France and Britain in imposing sanctions through the UN. Turkey has called for an internal solution to the problems in Syria and opposed external intervention.

The Washington Post carried an analysis on May 1 suggesting a “Doomsday scenario” if Syria fails: civil war engulfing the region, “sectarian strife and extremism” and chaos spreading into Iraq and other countries. Unlike in Libya, an imperialist military intervention faces more problems. But our duty, as in Libya, is clearly to oppose any imperialist intervention. It’s the kiss of death for any progressive change; Washington’s interests are not for democracy.

What Next?

What next? Two issues are intertwined: the Arab uprising, which we must support; and imperialist meddling, political and military, which we must oppose.

There are continuing mobilisations and struggles in Egypt. The regime doesn’t have them under control yet. In Libya, the stalemate could continue for some time. In Syria, who knows? Further struggles will rise up in other countries, although imperialism has found its way to direct military intervention. Most of its regimes are intact, and all the repression and grievances still exist.

What demands will drive the struggle? The democratic struggle against the dictators will be at the forefront. But social and economic issues will be of increasing importance – the demand for equality. Otherwise the struggles could just peter out, with some token changes.

But also the national, anti-imperialist, struggle – which has been quiescent so far, but strong beneath the surface – must enter in, linking up and driving the struggle to a deeper political development of the radicalising forces. Perry Anderson notes: “It remains striking that anti-imperialism is the dog that has not – or not yet – barked in the part of the world where imperial power is most visible. Can this last?”

The Palestinian struggle could provide just such a focus, raising the anti-imperialist thrust and providing the national demands that could link the democratic and social demands and the struggles further across the Arab world.

Noam Chomsky points to the underlying sentiment: US polling agencies reveal that by overwhelming majorities, Arabs regard the US and Israel as the major threats they face: the US is so regarded by 90% of Egyptians, in the region generally by over 75%.

A recent Electronic Intifada article reports that a call for a Third Intifada is gathering strength among radicalising youth. A Facebook page set up in early March collected 230,000 members in two weeks. Facebook removed the page on March 29. It was replaced with several copycat pages and an Arabic language website. They advertised plans for action on May 13-14, with peaceful protests at Israeli embassies worldwide; then on May15, “Sunday of Liberation”, demos at Israeli embassies in Jordan and Egypt, demos on the border in Syria, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank and Gaza and big demos in cities like Cairo .

There’s lots of pressure to support the Palestinian struggle, calls to open the border with Gaza, and it’s put pressure on Hamas and Fateh to end their factional warfare.

Perry Anderson pointed out that it’s “unlikely the national can be sealed off indefinitely from the political and social in the ongoing turbulence. For in the Muslim world to the east of the zone of upheaval, the American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have yet to be finally won, and the blockade of Iran is still some way from its logical conclusion; and at its centre, the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza continue as before.”

Nasserism and Ba’athism will not revive today. “But the impulse behind them will have to be recovered in the Arab world, if revolt is to become revolution”, he wrote. “Liberty and equality need to be rejoined. But without fraternity, in a region so pervasively mauled and inter-connected, they risk souring … Required is a generous Arab internationalism, capable of envisaging – in the distant future, when the last sheikh is overthrown – the equitable distribution of oil wealth in proportion to population across the Arab world, not the monstrous opulence of the arbitrary few and the indigence of the desperate many.”

[This is a talk presented at a Direct Action Forum in Sydney on May 14.]

International News & Analysis